Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
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Jesus wrestled with God about a better way

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call
January 25, 2014

A strange phrase found in the gospels is that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray in the traditional version of the “Our Father,” though in the contemporary version we pray, “Save us from the time of trial.”

Some criticize the traditional version, saying God would not lead us into temptation. Considering the strange phrase in the gospels, however, though I am not a biblical literalist, one might not be so quick to dismiss the metaphor. Neither version is right or wrong.

Many, as I, pray both versions. I consider that as narcissism tempted Jesus in the desert, he wrestled not with the devil but with God.

Years past for which I yearn at times, two of my sons took on the personae of the Olympic track stars they watched on television. They held their own Olympics in the house. Matthew, then four, always crossed the finish line first. He raised his arms in victory: “I won, I won.” Stephen, 2, trailing behind, took a cue from his older brother. Was celebrating part of the ritual? He too raised his arms high: “I lost, I lost.”

Consider this conversation Nikos Kazantzakis gives us. “Father Makarios, do you still wrestle with the devil?” “Not any longer,” said the saintly monk. “I have grown old and he has grown old with me. He doesn’t have the strength. I wrestle with God.” “With God? And you hope to win?” “I hope to lose,” Makarios said.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to wrestle with God.

The temptation story of Jesus, told in three gospels, comes right after his baptism by John at the River Jordan. There, Jesus hears God’s call: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

My beloved. My chosen one. There’s an undertone of the suffering servant of the Book of Isaiah in that call, in that identification. A call to the cross.

What is it that Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof? “If this is how you treat your chosen friends, God, no wonder you have so few.”

What Jesus heard troubled him as he “was led by the Spirit in the wilderness” where he was presented with an easier, attractive and efficient Plan B. And the wrestling began, not with the devil but with God, about what it might mean to be God’s beloved, God’s chosen one, God’s suffering servant? There must be a better way?

“Allow me to suggest a better way,” the devil said. “What about a miracle, some magic, smoke and mirrors. After all, isn’t that what people want?”

In the wilderness, Jesus struggled within himself and wrestled with God. He recognized the lies he heard in the desert. Then, going to his hometown synagogue, he owned God’s call.

He read from Isaiah. (A bishop I once worked with quipped that in the Christian scriptures Jesus was the first lay reader.) “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he read. “He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free… Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The true story happened anew.

When you wrestle with God about good inspirations you may have been resisting, one of two things can happen. Winning isn’t one. Either you walk away from the relationship, or you wrestle until you lose. When God wins, you have reason to celebrate. “I lost! I lost!”

[Canon Bill Lewellis, [email protected], a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]


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